The City Man

Howard Akler has become one of my favourite authors. I’ve read three of his — I’m told — four books: Splitsville (2018), Men of Action (2015), and now The City Man (2005), accidentally reading in reverse order. All are available from Coach House. The book I haven’t yet read is his first, Toronto: The Unknown City, the title of which is unsurprising given his novels.

I’ve lived in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and I can’t say that Toronto is my favourite. Yet, Akler’s novels endeared me to Toronto more than living there did. The city is central to both Splitsville and The City Man. In the latter, Union Station features prominently as a profitable haunt for pickpockets in the 1930s. In Akler’s prose, the setting receives more love than it has during the past decade of endless renovations. The action of Splitsville has as its backdrop the events surrounding the stillborn Spadina Expressway, construction of which was halted in 1971 after public outcry. I’m a sucker for local history, and Toronto is a city too busy to often remember its own, so I admire how Akler works it into his writing.

Akler’s prose leaves ample space for the imagination to fill the gaps. The descriptions are terse and sparse, and delivered in brief, evocative turns of phrase where every word pulls its own weight. What’s artful here is that this isn’t a matter of omission, but rather clever use of negative space to let the story breath. On a busier page the reader might be rushing through the crowded sentences searching for the next important piece of information. A page out of Akler’s books instead invites the reader to slow down and chew on each word carefully, mulling over its individual importance and contribution to the whole. This less-is-more approach to his prose means Akler can say more with less, and sometimes speak volumes without stating anything. In the autobiographical Men of Action, he describes his process as carrying around a memo book to “work over original sentences, loosen their knots until each one is limber enough to connect to the next.” When I read this, it made perfect sense. This careful, piecemeal approach to sentence-craft is evident in his works.

I haven’t had much to say about the plot of his novels, because if anyone ever reads this I’d prefer they read the books for themselves. The City Man follows Eli Morenz, the titular reporter for the Toronto Star who is assigned to report on events in the city. In doing so, he stumbles across a cadre of small-time pickpockets working “the whiz” — as the racket is called. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t want to describe any specific scenes or events that would given them away. What I will say is that the story is not complicated. In many ways it reflects the prose, in that the focus is on small moments instead of big set pieces.

I love this novel. It’s the third debut I’ve read in a row and for my money the strongest. Sadly, Akler recounts in Men of Action that it took him eight years to write The City Man. And it was another thirteen years after that before Splitsville first appeared. So I’ll likely be waiting a while before I hear from Akler again. At least it’ll be worth it.

St. Ursula’s Convent

St. Ursula’s Convent was the first novel published in Canada which was also written by an author born in Canada. Though this fact alone entitles the novel to a place in the annals of Canadian literature, there are several other remarkable facts about the work, not the least of which being that it was written when the author was only seventeen. Published first in Kingston in 1824, St. Ursula’s Convent had been written ten years earlier when the author was a teenager living in Nova Scotia. That the author of Canada’s first home-grown novel was a young woman informs the novel in interesting ways.

St. Ursula’s Convent passes the Bechdel test by its second chapter. A refreshing surprise given my complaints about the lack of female characters in the last novel I read — however understandable that is in a eight-decade-old novel about the Spanish Civil War. In fact, the novel centres mainly on two female protagonists. The foremost character, Adelaide, is the daughter of a Quebec seigneur who attends a convent in Quebec City as part of her education. There she meets the titular Nun of Canada, Mother St. Catherine, whose story occupies much of the first half of the book. Many of the other characters of any importance are also women, with the story being told from their perspective.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of St. Ursula’s Convent, as the novel covers significant ground in only 200 pages. The introduction to my edition notes that some early reviewers describes the pace as “manic”, and I think that’s a fair characterization. To give you some idea of the general plot: Adelaide attends a convent in Quebec City, where she meets the virtuous Mother St. Catherine, who shares with Adelaide her own disheartening life story. Adelaide also becomes close friends with Charlotte, the daughter of a British officer living in Quebec, and is invited to travel with them to England. During her travels to Europe, Adelaide discovers some secrets about her own past, and that of Mother St. Catherine.

The novel includes piracy, kidnapping, shipwrecks, and effusive praise of the Canadian countryside. Children are revealed to have been swapped at birth, people given up for dead make a surprise appearance, and as a consequence I understand why early readers were critical of the novel’s sometimes melodramatic plot. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it though. The final quarter of the novel drags since by that time the central mysteries and drama have already been revealed and solved, and the denouement stretches longer than is necessary. The prose is mostly “tell” and not “show”, which generally hurts the novel. However, there are places where this works to the advantage of the story. At least two lengthy stretches of the novel consist of characters retelling their own pasts, and here the tell-don’t-show prose effectively captures the feeling of someone relating an anecdote to an audience. I’ll admit I’m more forgiving since I know the author was a teenager at the time — I couldn’t have written this well at seventeen. Perhaps I owe Ted Allen an apology for saying This Time A Better Earth “has the hallmarks of an early career work”, however.

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart would go onto write two other novels, Tonnewonte, and Edith, or The Doom. I will definitely locate, read, and discuss these other two novels here at some point, although to my knowledge Tonnewonte has never received a reissue after it’s initial publication in 1825. There are probably scanned digital versions I can find online, but I might be thwarted in my efforts to find a physical copy to read. The case of Edith, or The Doom is even more unfortunate. Some selections from the novel were published in New Brunswick newspapers in 1848-9, but the finished novel was never published. There does exist a scholarly edition of Edith, in the form of an MA thesis completed by Jennifer Slauenwhite (née Jeffries) in 1991. At the moment that’s the most accessible version I can recommend. I’ve spoken with Ms. Slauenwhite, who stated that she might have the chance to revisit her edition of Edith in a few years, and hopefully find a publisher. I hope she gets the chance — I think Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart deserves more critical and scholarly attention that considers more than just St. Ursula’s Convent.

Perhaps because of its place in the history of Canadian literature, St. Ursula’s Convent has had better luck when it comes to remaining in print. My edition comes from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT), a sadly defunct project based out of Carleton University. Initially published by Carleton University Press, McGill-Queen’s took over distributing the books reissued by the CEECT when Carleton University Press closed up shop in 1999. Twelve books were reissued through the CEECT series, between 1985 and 2012. Of these I have St. Ursula’s Convent and their version of John Richardson’s Wacousta. On the basis of these two editions I highly recommend the CEECT versions of any book.

The 1991 CEECT reissue of St. Ursula’s Convent is the most recent to my knowledge, and remains in print through McGill-Queen’s. There were two earlier reissues, one through the “Maritimes Literature Reprint Series” based out of Mount Alison University in 1978, and one through The Cherry Tress Press in 1981. The most commonly available version of St. Ursula’s Convent appears to be the CEECT one, although I have seen a few copies of The Cherry Tree edition online. Naturally, the CEECT edition comes highly recommended.

This Time A Better Earth

In 2020, I read some Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler, and a few offerings from smaller Canadian presses like Coach House. The last book I read this year was Ted Allan’s 1939 novel, This Time A Better Earth.

This Time a Better Earth, by Ted Allan: A Critical Edition: Allan, Ted,  Vautour, Bart: 9780776621630: Books - Amazon.ca

The University of Ottawa Press publishes an excellent Canadian literature series, and my copy of Ted Allan’s novel is their 2015 reissue. I had previously read their reissue of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage, and earlier in 2020 I read their fantastic collection of Earle Birney’s early Trotskyist writings, edited by Bruce Nesbitt. The epithet “critical edition” is more than applicable to the uOttawa Press editions, which contain scholarly introductions that highlights each work’s literary and historical importance.

This Time A Better Earth is a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Allan’s book is based on his own time serving in the International Brigade during the war, specifically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which housed most of the American and Canadian volunteers. The novel follows a Canadian volunteer, Bob Curtis, who goes to Spain to serve in the International Brigades and support the Republican forces against the Spanish fascists. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment while travelling to the front, Bob is tasked with writing and sending English radio broadcasts to North America and sent to Madrid. In Madrid he cultivates a romance with a German photojournalist named Lisa Kammerer.

The only work about the Spanish Civil War I’d read previously was George Orwell’s autobiographical Homage to Catalonia. The two books make for an interesting contrast given that Orwell served in the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) faction of the Republican forces rather than with the International Brigades. The POUM had a broadly Trotskyist membership that opposed the Stalinist communism adopted by much of the Popular Front that led the Spanish Republic forces. There was significant infighting between the POUM and the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War, despite their being on the same side of the conflict, culminating in the May Days clashes in Catalonia.

From Orwell’s perspective the POUM was antagonized and suppressed by the Stalinists eventually being declared illegal. Ted Allan, however, adopts the perspective of the Popular Front government:

A week later came the news that the POUM had attempted to overthrow the Popular Front government in Barcelona. With it came the news of an intensified fascist drive in Asturian and Basque provinces. The communiques were brief and to the point. After three days of street fighting, the Popular Front government had restored order. The leaders of POUM were arrested.

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At best the description of the May Days street fighting is an over-simplification. Though in fairness to Allan, this is surely how the Popular Front government in Barcelona would have told their members in Madrid the events occurred. POUM is only mentioned in passing in This Time A Better Earth, since the action of the novel focuses on the International Brigades near Madrid. Several characters express exasperation at the Republican infighting, though in Allan’s novel the fault lies squarely with POUM.

Related to the brief mentions of the POUM in Allan’s novel, the problems of unification and divisions within the Republican forces recur in the story. Early on Comandante Kuller addresses the amassed volunteers of the International Brigades heading to the front to tell them that there are no politics or party divisions in the Brigades, they are simply unified by opposing fascism in Spain. Kuller’s speech is less a statement of fact than a instruction not to allow sectarian divisions to undermine the cause. Although most of the international volunteers are socialists or collectivists of some stripe, there are some interesting outliers. Late in the novel appears Captain Brown, a self-described Tory Imperialist from Britain who joined the International Brigades to promote Britain’s imperial interests in Spain. The novel does not have much explicit to say about the fault lines in the Republican forces yet it does effectively capture the perspective members of the International Brigade had towards the divisions.

As the critical introduction helpful explains, the character of Lisa Kammerer the protagonists’ love interest is based on real life female photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died during the Spanish Civil War. Taro was a compelling figure to fictionalize in the novel, although Lisa Kammerer’s personality and vocation are more interesting than her romance with protagonist Bob Curtis. The romance is the weakest aspect of the novel. The constant objectification of Lisa Kammerer the “pretty blonde” by the other characters, while maybe true to life, is also grating. The real Gerda Taro was a skilled artist and daring war photographer. While there are glimpses of that in her fictionalized counterpart, the more intriguing questions surrounding her motivations and vocation are sidelined for the stilted romance.

Don’t let my complaints about the romance subplot sour your impression of the novel, however. This Time A Better Earth is strongest in its depiction of the Civil War itself. Allan’s early portrayal of aerial bombardment employs a clipped, staccato prose that effectively communicates the chaos and dread. Bob is continually shaken by the destruction he witnesses, and unnerved by how his comrades come to accept it so quickly once stationed at the front. Though clearly aligned with the Republican cause, the novel does not avoid depicting their disorganization and frailty. This Time A Better Earth has the hallmarks of an early career work, but for a debut novel penned in Allan’s mid-twenties it impresses.

Next I plan on looking at another novel of historical interest, this time reprinted by the sadly defunct Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT). More on that soon.

The NCL Collecting Blog

There used to be an blog called NCL Collecting, run by ‘The Ignorant Intellectual.’ The purpose of the blog was to document the author’s collection of New Canadian Library titles. The blog was a useful resource since the NCL had gone through several iterations where some titles were dropped and others added, and there is no readily available list of what books belonged to the NCL at various times. The NCL Collecting blog was helpfully developing a list of titles that belonged to the NCL, as well as some of its competitor series like the Laurentian Library, Macmillan Paperbacks, and the New Press Canadian Classics.

The NCL Collecting blog was defunct by the time of my review of I Do Remember the Fall in 2017, since the last update had been in 2015. Nevertheless, the blog remained online, so the reference lists remained available. I noticed recently that the domain for the blog (nclcollecting.ca) has lapsed, so the blog has gone offline. Luckily it’s still possible to access most of it through the WayBack Machine, so its contents are not completely lost to digital decay. My plan is backup some of the useful information here so that similarly interested people might be able to find it online without needing to know where to look.

One of the effects of the blog going offline is that the posted images are not retrievable. Much of the blog’s space was dedicated to exhibiting the cover art from NCL series, but the images are not saved by the WayBack Machine and appear as broken when viewed through the archived version.

The blog contained information on several CanLit series I’m interested in collecting:

  • The New Canadian Library

The famous Canadian literature line published by McClelland & Stewart, starting in 1958. As the most prolific series of CanLit ever published, the NCL occupies a special place in the history of our national literature.

  • The Clarke Irwin Canadian Paperbacks (1963-1970)

A series published by Clarke Irwin that’s distinctive for not limiting itself strictly to novels and short stories as the NCL typically does. It also included some non-fiction, autobiographies, histories, and plays.

  • Copp Clark: Studies in Canadian Literature (1970??)

A brief series of biographies of major Canadian writers, including Charles G.D. Roberts, Morley Callahan, and Hugh MacLennan. The NCL collecting blog was aware of eleven books which existed in the series.

  • Forum House: Canadian Writers and Their Works (1969-1972)

A series of short biographies of Canadian authors written published by Forum House, an imprint of Coles Publishing. Only six books were published during the series’ life.

  • Laurentian Library (1967-1979)

A competitor to the NCLs fiction line that achieved at least 75 titles during its run. The Ignorant Intellectual suggests that it struggled against the NCL since the material used to make the books were of inferior quality.

  • Macmillan Paperbacks (1979 – Late 1980s)

Macmillian replaced the Laurentian Library with this series in 1979. In the later eighties Stoddart and the Canadian Publishing Corporation purportedly took over the series and published some titles themselves.

  • New Press Canadian Classics (Early 1980s – Mid 1990s)

An imprint of General Publishing, which was based out of Toronto. General was owned by Jack Stoddart of Stoddart Publishing and both companies published NPCC books. The series published 58 titles in its lifetime and many of its more successful entries were absorbed by the NCL after it was concluded in the nineties.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

I consider Mordecai Richler one of my favourite authors, though I have read shamefully few of his books. The books I have read are also not his most famous or acclaimed. The first I read was an NCL edition of Son of a Smaller Hero, which I borrowed from my uncle last year. I have also read an NCL collection of Richler’s nonfiction, The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. Son of a Smaller Hero was Richler’s second novel, and the first of many set in Montreal’s Jewish community. His first novel was the little-spoken-of The Acrobats, whose obscurity continues to pique my interest. Regardless, it is fitting that my second foray into Richler’s fiction is his fourth novel and his second centred in Montreal.

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The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz follows the increasingly unscrupulous ventures of Duddy Kravitz, from boyhood to early adulthood. The novel begins by chronicling the youthful, if often malicious, pranks being played on Duddy’s teacher, before advancing to his late teens. Driven by his grandfather’s maxim that a man is nothing without land, Duddy schemes to buy all the land around a hidden lake in order to one day construct a resort. The novel traces his ambition, and the moral arch of the steps he is willing to take to achieve his dream. The novel itself is excellent a deserving of its standing as one of Richler’s best. Since I recommend anyone who has not already read the book do so for themselves, instead of recapping its events I rather comment on a few choice details.

The novel opens with Mr. MacPherson, a once idealistic teacher whose desire to raise a generation of successful young men slowly gave way to reality. Although he succeeded in raising many students who moved on to become doctors and lawyers, they do not gather as he had hoped at his home and celebrate their success with him. Having forgotten their one time teacher they moved to more prosperous districts of Montreal. Mr. MacPherson’s wife is also deathly ill, despite his tender care. Mr. MacPherson is the victim of Duddy’s continual harassment and pranks, which ultimately result in the death of his wife when a prank phone-call results in her leaving bed and over-exerting herself. A once idealistic teacher thereafter renounces his prohibition on strapping students and begins drinking. In the later parts of the novel a character mentions off-hand that MacPherson eventually found himself locked away in the asylum, having presumably drunken himself there.

Richler was particularly unkind to the educators who appear in his fiction – at least those I’ve encountered so far. I was reminded of the fate of Professor Theo Hall from Son of a Smaller Hero, who takes in protagonist Noah Adler as a boarder and student, and has his wife cheat on him with Noah for his troubles. Both MacPherson and Hall are idealistic in their pedagogical views and goals, although they are each held back from achieving their dreams by being average talents. The comeuppance for their idealism is ultimately both failure and the loss of their partner. Perhaps the parallel is a coincidence, since I cannot detect any special commentary on educators intended by Richler, but I find it interesting.

Another archetype common to Richler’s fiction is the sullen Jewish grandfather, zeyda. In Son of a Smaller Hero, Noah Adler’s grandfather looms over the proceedings as patriarch and the secret of what he is hiding in the office lock-box has hardened his heart. Duddy’s grandfather is both less present and transparent, although he seems mostly disheartened by the (apparent) failure of his preferred son to provide him with grandchildren. It is the grandfather who relates to Duddy the maxim that a man without land is nothing, and by the end of the novel it is his disappointment that signals Duddy’s ethical failure. The old men in Richler’s novels often represent both tradition, naturally, but also the moral core of the story. In Son of a Smaller Hero, the grandfather’s most prized possessions were in the end sentimental rather than monetary, and in Duddy Kravitz the grandfather cannot approve of Duddy’s acquisition of land regardless of what it costs those around him.

Reading Richler’s nonfiction essays (in the NCL collection) was rewarding in that many are reflections on experiences he continually mined for material in his fiction. Quebec’s resorts feature prominently in Duddy Kravitz – Duddy goes to work at his uncle’s resort early on, and is determined to build his own after discovering a hidden lake. Although I could have surmised what was going on, Richler’s essay describing the Jewish and other get-away resorts in Quebec provided a background against which I could appreciate the setting of those portions of Duddy Kravitz. Likewise, another essay in the NCL collection contains Richler’s reflection on writing his first novel, The Acrobats, while a young man in Paris. I recognized this experience as mined for the character of Hersh, a schoolmate of Duddy’s who eventually becomes an author and travels to Paris. Although a bit-player in Duddy Kravitz, I hear Hersh returns as the protagonist of a later Richler work.

Having fallen behind in my blogging, I’ve already finished reading next time’s novel. So for next time, my first time reading Brian Moore.

All My Puny Sorrows

Until recently I lived just off the Danforth in Toronto. One strange Torontonian practice I noticed while there was that some people would leave unwanted books on their lawn, so I happened to pick up this book one day while walking to the subway station.

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I found the book in perfect condition beside a water damaged copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I might attempt later on down the line. I decided that I would read it as a break from my adventure through the NCL and its competitors.

All My Puny Sorrows follows a middle-aged woman, Yolanda, whose older sister Elfrieda is suicidal. Since Yolanda is the narrator of sorts, the book follows her efforts to respond to her sister’s suicide attempts and manage the other aspects of her life in the meantime. Twice divorced, Yolanda has two teenage children, and several short-term lovers which make appearances throughout the book. For my money the most compelling character is her mother, who remains emotionally strong and lively despite the innumerable sorrows she encounters throughout her life.

I choose a good time to read the book as I was teaching in a bioethics course at Toronto just as I began reading, with one of the units being focused on assisted suicide. The book raises the question, which Yolanda grapples with, of whether she should help her sister kill herself more peacefully. That her sister does not have a terminal illness, but is only inconsolably depressed, makes the question interestingly complicated. The details of the case muddle how ideal of an example the book offers however, since Elfrieda is clearly not receiving ideal medical care. The more difficult thought experiment would present us with someone who has the best help available but remained inconsolably depressed; with Elfrieda there remains a possibility that a better healthcare system could save her.

I was not surprised to learn that the core of the book is based on the author’s experiences with her own sister who committed suicide. The depiction of the Canadian mental health infrastructure is particularly scathing and is what made me suspect the author had some first-hand experience. The doctors and nurses Yolanda meets are, with some exceptions, generally jaded, unsympathetic, and self-absorbed. In fairness, this is how they seem to Yolanda’s eyes, a woman desperately searching for help for her sister. Stressed under the circumstances, it is easy to see why she would think medical professionals do too little.

I do not want to say too much more about the book as it is more recent than most I cover here. However, a colleague did catch me laughing aloud more than once at it, so that says something positive about its capacity for effectively mixing sorrow with a comedic touch.

In this book Yolanda is a writer who mostly writes tween fiction about the adventures of Rodeo Rhonda. This prompted me to reflect on how many of the viewpoint characters in the novels I’ve been reading are writers, especially since the central character in the last book I had read, The Town Below, was also an author. I realize this results from authors writing “what they know” which is frequently “being an author” but I wish more of them would branch out. I Do Remember The Fall also featured this kind of plot device, although the protagonist was a sort-of journalist, not a novelist, and not a successful one at that. I can give some modest praise to The Alley Cat here for depicting a protagonist proficient at something other than writing, namely restaurant management. It will be interesting to see whether this trend of author protagonists continues, and honestly I hope otherwise.

For next time I intended to read Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie, but having found it a difficult book that demands careful and patient reading, I’ve decided to return to it later. Instead I’ll be reading Earle Birney’s Turvey, a comedy about one man’s farcical attempts to join  the Canadian army during the Second World War. Given my current work  this seemed an appropriate book to give a read.

The Town Below

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Roger Lemlin’s The Town Below comes recommended by another author whose work I recently read: Brian Busby. I selected it to read based on the vague recollection of the recommendation from his blog, however I forgot some of his comments from that same blog post. More on that later.

 

The Town Below mainly follows Denis Boucher and Jean Colin, two young men in the Duplessis era Quebec City. Set in the city’s “lower town” the novel depicts a vibrant and bustling working class community with its internal divisions, eccentricities, and cast of strange characters. The highlight of the book is certainly the glimpses of this community, from the disjointed Liberal Party meeting, to the frantic bingo game at the local church.

I complained in my review of my favourite whipping boy, The Alley Cat, that the events of the novel do not come together into anything unified. Neither do the events of The Town Below, but that suits this sort of social satire, with its comparative realism and depiction of life as a series of not-necessarily connected events.

While the depictions of the community were what I found the most enjoyable, I did find the central conflict of the novel frustrating. Denis and Jean comprise two thirds of a love triangle completed by Lise, a girl recently returned from a convent school. Though Jean makes an early good impression, Denis quickly takes the lead and retains it for the rest of the novel with ease. This grates since Denis is pretentious, annoying, and unsympathetic, whereas Jean is hard-working, well-meaning, and doomed. The novel recognizes Denis is full of himself, but the small moments of insight the narration offers the reader does not alleviate one’s annoyance at seeing an arrogant youth have his pretensions confirmed.

Late in the novel Denis, having decided he would like to be a great writer, has entered a writing contest. I wanted him to lose. I thought he would lost because it would take him down a peg and cause him to realize that he is not simply better than everyone else by virtue of having attended school and trying (but failing) to not be emotionally invested in women. When he won the writing contest I was audibly disappointed and nearly put down the book. However, the author is clearly having some fun at the expense of this character. Although the reader and author are aware of his pretensions, Denis is not.

As much as I disliked Denis, I rather liked his foil, Jean, which added to my frustration. Jean did not have the luxury of the kind of schooling Denis is flaunting, but perseveres anyway. To impress Lise and better himself, Jean borrows some of Denis’ school books and makes some headway. Early in the book he injures himself attempting to impress Lise by collecting plums, and walks with a limp for the rest of the story. This causes him to be subjected to abuse by his parents and others who accuse him of faking the injury for sympathy. I will not spoil his fate here, but I had an inclination of where his story was going once I read the title of the book’s second of two parts.

Despite having forgotten that Busby discusses the issue at length in his blog post I noticed early on that the translation was less than ideal. Although the book is too ambitious for its own good, packing itself with more characters than it can handle, it is more muddled by a weak English translation. The NCL version I read happens to be this translation. I won’t reiterate Busby’s comments on the problem, but if possible I recommend reading the book in French. The Town Below is deserving of a better English translation.

I’m pleased to note The Town Below is currently available through Dundurn’s Voyageur Classics series, however it remains the same bad English translation as the NCL version.

Next time, something more contemporary.

A Gentleman of Pleasure

This blog was originally intended to recount my thoughts on non-fiction I was reading, as the majority of things I read do tend to be non-fiction. However, I embarked on this right before I introduced a steady stream of fiction to supplement my diet. I’ll probably change the name of the blog sooner or later but for at least the next two reviews it’s appropriate.

Late last year I happened to win a free copy of The Dusty Bookcase from a contest held on Brian Busby’s blog of the same name, on which the book is based. Both the blog and book consist of reviews of forgotten pieces of Canadiana, including both lost treasures and the justifiably forgotten. I originally chanced across Busby’s blog while researching Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, one of a half-dozen screeds published in the late seventies and eighties by BMG Press, that I had found at used book sales in Ottawa. Busby had wrote an entry on the book, which was among the only explanations online of what exactly it was. That entry, and a follow-up on the author’s sequel Enough! both made it into the book of The Dusty Bookcase. Having read my copy through three times already, I’ll revisit it some-time in the future, but in the meantime it comes highly recommended.

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I have intended to read Busby’s earlier books for a while, and after recently reading I Do Remember the Fall motivated my choice of today’s subject. In discussing that book I made much of how well John Glassco’s quotation on the back cover captured the essence of the novel. As it happens, Busby’s had written a biography of John Glassco, titled A Gentleman of Pleasure. As a biography, the subject matter of the book is obvious, since it beings with Glassco’s birth and concludes with his death. Born to the wealthy daughter of a Montreal magnate, and a father who would become bursar at McGill University, John was an early achiever. Despite his early academic promise, his parents held him back from university at age thirteen and instead sent him to a miserable boarding school existence. Eventually Glassco would reach McGill at fifteen and meet other rising literary figures in Montreal, including F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and Graeme Taylor. Taylor, four years his senior, would become a life partner of Glassco’s and constant companion for the next several decades.

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Glassco and Taylor’s relationship is one the most tragic aspects of the biography. Glassco would travel with Taylor to Paris when he was seventeen, settling in the Monteparnasse district alongside many artists and literary giants. The two engaged in various menage a trois with a succession of partners, but nevertheless remained together as the different third partners came and went. One of these triangles, involving a woman from Western Canada, put stress on their partnership, and Taylor returned to Canada. Glassco and the girl soon separated anyway, and he returned to Canada after he contracted tuberculosis. After Glassco’s recovery he and Taylor moved to a farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. By this time Taylor career as an author was basically behind him; his nominal success as a novelist was over. Though Glassco had always looked to Taylor for literary mentorship, he began to see Taylor as holding him back as a writer. The tragedy of their relationship comes to a head when Taylor is diagnosed with berger’s disease and swiftly deteriorates. Upon the death of Taylor one gets the sense Glassco not only mourned him, but also felt Taylor’s death freed him from a presence which had been increasingly holding him back.

In many ways the subsequent years proved him right in this regard. The bulk of Glassco’s literary output came only after Taylor’s death. There are other worthy details of Glassco’s life, such as his subsequent marriage to a Russian emigrant who gradually lost her mind and came to believe herself the reincarnation of Nefertiti, or his ongoing struggle to find a publisher who would publish his erotica. However, it is worth drawing attention to the main contribution of Busby’s biography in particular. A Gentleman of Pleasure impresses by attempting to parse the truth from John Glassco’s lies, and tracing the presence of the man through the works of the many literary figures he encountered throughout his life. Not only did Glassco’s early years with Taylor in Paris’ Monteparnasse inspire Glassco’s own critically acclaimed Memoirs of Monteparnasse, but Glassco and Taylor make small appearances in a half-dozen books by other authors who lived in Monteparnasse around the same time. Busby tracks down many of these references, including the allusions that change their names, and compares the stories to each other and the sparse known facts.

This is an impressive scholastic achievement, and necessary, given that Glassco delighted in pulling a fast one on people. As Busby explains, it is well known today that Memoirs of Monteparnasse contain significant embellishments and some outright falsehoods all built around a the kernel of Glassco’s real experiences. What Busby has managed is to write as good a biography as is possible about someone who was continually throwing up smoke-screens and misdirection. The biography was also a pleasant introduction to Glassco the author, situating his works within the context of influence drawn from both his personal experiences and literary surroundings. Best of all, it interested me in John Glassco’s body of work, which is no mean feat given I have barely any familiarity with poetry or erotica.

Perhaps I’ll start with Memoirs of Monteparnasse. Regardless, Glassco himself could only have been pleased to have as good a biography on himself made as A Gentle of Pleasure.

I Do Remember the Fall

The New Press Canadian Classics was General Publishing’s answer to the New Canadian Library. I began collecting the NCL as a gateway into Canadian literature generally, so I have no qualms with picking up and reading their competition as well. I recommend this sadly abandoned NCL collecting blog for details on both of these imprints.

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I remarked last time that after two trips to Montreal, albeit separated by 200 years, a visit to the prairies would be a nice change of pace. Upon approaching my expanding shelf of CanLit I was impressed by a quote from the back cover of I Do Remember the Fall.

“… the most appalling picture of a Saskatchewan small town I have ever read, and deeply depressing with its joyless drinking and certain loveless fornication that is more than redeemed by a great and touching tenderness.” – John Glassco

Randy Gogarty is a young man in his late twenties, but already washed up as a journalist. Blacklisted after his previous job in Toronto he manages to land a job writing for small local newspaper in Elk Brain, Saskatchewan. After his arrival by train we are introduced to his coworkers, the town of Elk Brain itself, and whispers of an upcoming strike. When the prophesied strike finally comes Randy walks off the job in solidarity, with assurances from management that it won’t cost him his job. The novel follows his efforts to survive in Elk Brain, including his misadventures with coworkers, a woman named Laurie, and the ongoing strike. I enjoyed this book too much to let on anything more than I have.

I Do Remember the Fall is a book defined not so much by any events as tone; the Glassco quote which graces the back cover is instructive. The novel is pervaded by a gloom and drudgery, punctuated by moments of insight within Randy’s narration. The portrait of prairie life is at once depressing in its frequent meaninglessness, but sympathetic to the people who struggle through it anyway. There is something pedestrian about many of the scenes Randy finds himself in, but M.T. Kelly mines them for a lot of pathos. Of the three Canadian novels covered so far here I Do Remember the Fall is the best, and we’ll see if it can retain that title going forward.

Since I discussed The Alley Cat just recently, I’ll conclude with a little comparison. Now, I Do Remember the Fall and The Alley Cat are very different sorts of books. The former is a more grounded tale with painfully human characters, and the latter is full of Dickensian exaggeration and farce. Yet the protagonists Florent and Randy are both about the same age, and have similarly flawed personalities. Why then is Randy much more sympathetic than Florent? Keep in mind our introduction to Florent is his helping an injured stranger on the street, while Randy is introduced attempting to hit on a disinterested passenger. A lot of the difference boils down to Randy’s humanity. Although he often comes across as selfish or conceited his narration succeeds in making otherwise insignificant annoyances and frustrations relatable. The reality of Randy’s circumstances – in contrast to Florent’s exaggerated Montreal – also makes it easier to sympathize with his plight. The reader is more likely to have attended an awkward work party than have been blackmailed by an eastern European man who speaks in riddles and tricked you into buying a restaurant.

I Do Remember the Fall comes highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of T.M. Kelly’s work. Next time we venture back into non-fiction with a biography of the author who directed me towards Kelly in the first place.

 

The Alley Cat

I chose this book initially because it was the longest novel in my growing NCL collection.

The Alley Cat begins with a good deed. A man walking along a Montreal street is struck in the head by a metal letter that fell from a sign. Florent Boissonneult, a twenty-something passerby, phones for help and waits with the injured man until emergency services arrive, before departing for work. Although the man dies, Florent receives messages from a rich eccentric who saw the act and who claims he wants to help Florent achieve his dream of owning a restaurant since he knows Florent to be pure of heart.

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The Alley Cat is a difficult book to review because despite my overall enjoyment of the (sometimes) dark comedy, I found myself disappointed. Yves Beauchemin’s book is often described as “Dickensian,” which is most noticeable in its characters. The characters are larger than life, and embody certain traits and archetypes. Like the Macawbers or Uriah Heap, Beauchemin’s novel has an obscurantist foreigner of uncertain extraction, Ange-Albert the laid-back couch-surfer, or Picquot, the hot-headed French chef with a heart of gold. The Alley Cat is populated with interesting and unique characters which do bring to mind Dickens. I once read Dickens characters described as “caricatures” because of their exaggerated personalities and attributes, although I felt that a touch uncharitable. Those found in The Alley Cat do possess an exaggerated but engaging characterization however. A favourite character in the novel is Florent’s cousin, a priest who spends all day reading and who attempts throughout the book to find a stove into which Gogol threw a hitherto lost work, which he hopes to recover. The chief strength of The Alley Cat is its characters, although their wasted potential relates to some of its greatest flaws.

The novel made a bad first impression from which it never escaped. Despite beginning with Florent cast in the role of good Samaritan, in the first couple chapters he supposes that his mysterious benefactor must be “some old fag”, he cheats on his wife on a whim, and casually uses the n-word. By themselves, these facts do not present a problem, even to the semi-comedic tone the book intends. However, they are endemic to a larger issue I had with the book: I did not find Florent sympathetic. This is important because much of the book depends on the reader cheering Florent to get back at those who swindled him, and sympathizing with his indignation. There were points at which I was sympathetic with Florent and his circumstances—particularly when his malefactor refused to let him move on with his life—but I had to struggle to cheer for him. To wit, my complaint is not that The Alley Cat contains certain slurs, but that it puts them on the tongue of someone we are supposed to root for and seems to believe this makes him a relatable every-man.

Florent is at once the dullest and least likable in a cast of interesting personalities. His dullness actually fits with the characterization of Beauchemin’s works as Dickensian in style; David Copperfield is among the least interesting characters in David Copperfield because of his role as reader (and author) surrogate. However, David is a good person, whose misfortunes are either just that, misfortunes, or mistakes made from ignorance, not malice. Despite the Dickensian nature of the characters in The Alley Cat, the novel also fails to live up to the aspect of Dickensian format I enjoy most. The recurrence of characters and their plot-lines is important in Dickens; a character introduced early in a novel will likely reappear later and impact the plot in some relevant way.  Rarely does Dickens set something up which ultimately has no payoff. Take Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, who appears three times in the novel. First, she appears as a grotesque due to her deformity, then on her second appearance she displays hidden depths, and finally in the end she takes on a heroic role. Even Mr. Mell, the kindly but impoverished school teacher fired in the childhood portion of the same novel reappears in the final moments of David Copperfield. Although Mr. Mell has little impact on the main plot after his early departure, the reader is nevertheless rewarded for following and remembering his plot.

Most of the characters in The Alley Cat do not have a payoff. Now, in a novel in the style of Canadian social realism this would be fine. In real life people come and go with more or less impact on our lives. In a novel like Waste Heritage or I Do Remember the Fall this same feature takes on a different meaning because they are different kinds of stories. In a Dickensian novel the lack of payoff leaves a reader feeling cheated. Take my favourite character, the bookish priest whose subplot involves retrieving the wood stove thought to contain the remnants of a lost work of Gogol. The subplot ends in the most predictable and bland way possible. The stove arrives, and while fragments of the work are inside it, they are too fragile to move. The priest character adds nothing else to the plot, aside from attracting Florent’s scorn for the crime of being too nice. At one point he almost becomes useful by attempting to decipher a cryptic book written by the novel’s villain. Ultimately he fails, the code-book goes undeciphered, and that specific plot cul-de-sac goes nowhere.

At one point in the novel I suspected that the priest might decipher the book and provide Florent with some clue which would help him revenge himself upon his malefactors. Yet the solution Florent comes up with is all his own. It is also a solution he could have come up with without at least a third of the book having to occur. The plan Florent executes to sabotage his enemy’s eatery is one he could have enacted just as well without sojourning for hundreds of pages to Florida, and Quebec’s eastern townships on some glorified side-quests. Since his experiences leading up to his revenge contribute virtually nothing to its execution, the a reader is left wondering why they were taken on that journey in the first place. The final showdown with the novel’s primary antagonist is woefully anticlimactic, resolved not by Florent’s efforts or clever scheming, but by an implausibly grievous injury inflicted by the book’s eponymous feline. I enjoyed the journey that is this novel! My disappointment is that the journey adds little to the experience of the conclusion.

Those are my misgivings with The Alley Cat, a novel I enjoyed overall, despite the bad aftertaste. A more common criticism of the book is something else I noticed: the only significant non-francophone characters in the novel are villainous. The primary villain of the piece is an eastern-European immigrant of uncertain extraction. A disillusioned ally of the villain claims late in the novel that this character is in fact native to Canada, but the truth of this claim is left ambiguous, like most everything about the villain. The secondary villain is an anglophone Quebecker, in fact the only one to appear. I’ll admit that this did not bother me awfully much. The francophone characters which populate the rest of the novel run the full gamut of morality, so it is not as though francophones are portrayed as unambiguously good and non-francophones as evil.

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I raise this point because, when I initially completed the book a month ago I happened across Bob Coleman’s 1987 review for The New York Times. Coleman, bizarrely, I think, believed Beauchemin has it out for Americans specifically. His evidence for this claim is the fact that the main villains are non-francophones, and that Floridians depicted in The Alley Cat are unlikeable. The latter is debatable, as plenty of the francophone Quebeckers depicted in the novel are equally peculiar and unsympathetic. The former struck me as a singularly bizarre claim given that the allophones in question were not even Americans. Judith Freeman of the LA Times, while complaining similarly to me that there is a weird mean streak in the novel, concurs with Coleman that Americans get the worst of it in the novel. Methinks they are in a hurry to tilt at windmills.

Next time: after two adventures in Montreal, a change of scenery is in order. Perhaps a journey our west?